Reviewed: Vince Staples, BROCKHAMPTON, Kendrick Lamar

by Sam Shomette


Vince Staples // Big Fish Theory

"Vince’s album lives in a completely different ecosystem than every other rap album, period."


Vince Staples is a pretty interesting person in addition to the whole rapping thing. He has a popular Twitter account. There are plenty of people who would pay for a TV show consisting just of Vince talking. That irks Vince, to an extent - he’s lamented in interviews about the lack of separation between an artist’s music and their “aesthetic” - the Yeezys on Kanye, Uzi’s shoulder shimmy, basically any non-musical aspect of an artist that’s blown up by the press. It’s a fair point, but the funny thing is that a lot of Vince’s music does its best to tie into those things - his Prima Donna EP came with a short film focusing on the self-destruction of the pop star, with lyrics and visuals tying into a singular message. “Rain Come Down” and “Big Fish” both use their music videos to tie into a similar idea of Prima Donna - critiquing the lifestyle of the celebrity and the existence of the spotlight.

Vince seems to take reference to self-destructive artists as inspiration. Hell, Amy Winehouse gets sampled in “Alyssa Interlude” and “Samo” is pinned on that phrase, coined by Basquiat. Cobain was referenced on Prima Donna, and so on back into his discography. While Vince doesn’t have as much focus within Big Fish Theory on the intersection of self-destructive artists and celebrity artists, there’s a lot more contextualization for it.

Sonically, this is a complete departure from Summertime ’06, which was glowing in a G-funk environment that’s only even referenced now on “745” and “Rain Come Down,” if you squint. Vince’s latest album takes more from the James Blake-assisted cuts off of Prima Donna, which makes sentences like “Vince Staples raps over a sample of Oneotrix Point Never” and “Kendrick Lamar blacks out over a SOPHIE beat” make a little more sense. The deep, deep dives into Detroit techno and house (and almost into ambient, as on the opener “Crabs in a Bucket”) are immersing. Dark production throughout almost makes the singles (“Big Fish,” “BagBak,” “Rain Come Down”) stick out like a sore thumb in their pop potential. “Party People” has a similar vibe to those singles, but it’s still deathly dark (“How I’m supposed to have a good time / When death and destruction is all I see?”).

The one steady thing throughout is Vince’s rapping - verbose yet concise, staying in the pocket even if its seams fall apart in places. Whereas on ’06 Vince’s delivery was calm, giving a deadpan recount of the events of his youth, Big Fish Theory shows Vince with an almost frantic energy on many cuts (“Party People,” “Yeah Right”) which also has a dial that can go down (“Samo,” “Crabs in a Bucket,” “Rain Come Down”).

While on the subject of quieter cuts: There’s something to be said that the quieter sections of this album are sometimes outshined by the bangers on this album - “Rain Come Down” eases the listener out of the album, but it almost feels like a waste of Ty Dolla Sign’s vocals, leaving him to languish on an underwritten hook that feels a little quiet in the mix. Throughout the album, the hooks aren’t the focus, and as such you won’t find an overwritten hook on here, for better or worse. “Homage” just barely avoids making repeating a 2-line hook four times over sound boring; the whole world is left wondering what ASAP Rocky could have done on “Samo” if he had more duty on there than mumbling on the hook. However, at their bright spots, these simple hooks bridge brilliant verses from Vince and others into something that really parallels the visual art he so often admires. “Love Can Be” has Damon Albarn, Kilo Kish, and …. Ray J assisting at various points to their various strengths. “Yeah Right” doesn’t have an initially interesting hook, but SOPHIE and Flume’s beat feels almost molded into the crests and troughs of Vince’s cadence. It’s a spectacle in every sense of the word.

Big Fish Theory is never outright festive, which on rare occasions is to its detriment but mostly serves to draw the listener into its utterly unique soundscape. Club bangers sit side by side with pieces seeming to draw from Burial and older Oneotrix Point Never for artistic inspiration, with Vince rapping his ass off as he proves he’s making his own path with creative and inventive phrasings and references. All of this, while still having some tea on Demar DeRozan the rest of the world won’t know about.

Favorite Tracks: Yeah Right, Party People, Crabs in a Bucket, Samo, Homage
Least Favorite: Rain Come Down

Listen to Big Fish Theory on Spotify and Apple Music. Physicals are also being sold through BestBuy and Vince’s official website.

Brockhampton // SATURATION

“Me llamo Roberto, y el álbum es fantastico.”


Despite trying to listen to as much music as possible, I’m always a little skeptical when I see tweets along the lines of “LISTEN TO THIS!!” or “This shit is fire…” even though I’m guilty of the same several times a day, mid-album listen, whenever. However, it seemed like Music Twitter™ descended onto the account of self-described “boy band” Brockhampton, whose only marquee name is Kevin Abstract but does everything except lean on a single name. They’ve released a fistful of singles on their YouTube channel with accompanying music videos of varying personalities and a uniform low budget; they’re all nuts. Three singles – “Gold,” “Heat,” and “Star” – gave the impression that Brockhampton was a rap group the size of an NBA team, with the same number of lineups trotted in and out of the studio for any given song. You don’t know the names of the rappers, or who produced it – all that matters is it’s a Brockhampton song, rapped and produced by members of the group, and it’s a banger. “Face” is a different animal entirely – Brockhampton houses singers, too, and a haunting rap ballad comes out from behind sluggish drums and a toy piano. Braggadocio lives here, but these are men who have loved and lost, sometimes in the same breath.

“Face” was probably the most telling single, since it implied an entirely new soundscape from anything we’d heard from Saturation before. It opened the door for songs like “Cash,” which I really believe sounds like Alice in Chains looped with a drum machine. “Face” is also a cousin of “Waste,” the last track (and the only one without four letters!), which isn’t even rap – it’s a stunning and somber solo turn from bearface, a singer/songwriter within the Brockhampton collective.

While physically sitting between “Waste” and “Heat,” an opener that literally has someone yelling “fuck you!” into the mic repeatedly, most of the album sits somewhere between “Star” and “Waste.” The production is grounded in guitars, regardless of how much rapping goes on from track to track. Which isn’t to say lyrics aren’t present here – each rapper has enough bars on their verses that you’d think they could easily just branch off and have a career as successful as Kevin Abstract’s has been to this point. Case in point: Ameer Vann. Exhibit A: “Star” – calls himself both the black Tom Hanks and the black Mr. Banks (who was played by … Hanks). Exhibit B: “Bump” – labels his dick as good enough to sell by the gram alongside the coke. DAMN. Both braggadocio and despondence appear here like any good album, with the addendum that these are men of all colors, gay, straight, bi, all flexing and hurting as the song dictates. There are as many examples of this as lines from each member; the lyrics here are in parts witty (“Gold”), insane (“Bump”), and heartbreaking (“Trip”).

Also of note here are the three skits, which don’t take much time between songs whatsoever – Roberto, the character in Brockhampton’s music videos, has a small piece to say in each skit in Spanish, starting each with “Me llamo Roberto,” giving his story to the listener in small, unnerving vignettes.

While the tracks themselves are almost uniform in their left-field production and songwriting, “2Pac” stands out like a sore thumb among other tracks clocking in from three to four minutes long. Ameer Vann’s minute long confessional leaves no scar uncovered over warm synths. I desperately hope there is an extended version somewhere in Brockhampton’s studios in LA. “Milk” is similar in its opening confessional and stark look at life, but it’s a different animal and doesn’t scratch the same itch that “2Pac” begins to.

If there’s anything more to critique these songs on, it could be that the guitars used aren’t quite as out there as every other element of Brockhampton’s output. “Fake” reminds me of “Hotel California” every time I hear it, to the point that it distracts me at every listen. “Swim” and “Cash” both run the same concept of running a guitar lead between some hi-hats and a bass drum. “Swim” is a little shoegazier and “Cash” is a little more visceral, which is enough to set them apart on the first listen, but they mash together after several run-throughs of the album; it doesn’t help they’re almost consecutive tracks.

With all of that said, picking any deeper for flaws would just seem absurd, since there really isn’t that much else to critique these songs on. Brockhampton do their damnedest to bring together a variety of influences into a wildly unique set of tracks that’s set to make waves. Let’s hope for more music-making communes, shall we?

Favorite Tracks: Waste, Gold, Star, Cash
Least Favorite Tracks: 2Pac, Swim, Bank

Please join me as I listen to Waste on repeat on Apple Music and / or Spotify.

Kendrick Lamar // DAMN.

“Kendrick does it again."


It must be stated again that DAMN. is an opus, something that really cements Kendrick’s status as one of the best rappers of this generation and one of the best to do it, point blank.

Kendrick needs no introduction - you know who he is, but if you haven’t listened to him, he has three great albums up to this point. Of note: they all sound completely and totally different. Section.80 was a sleek pop-rap debut invoking older underground on the West Coast e.g. the Pharcyde; GKMC is the opus that exposed most people to Kendrick, with trendy beats and incredible lyrical integrity. To Pimp a Butterfly is literally Kendrick morphing into his influences, recruiting Flying Lotus, Thundercat, George Clinton, and many others to create a dense and important album seeped in the sounds of g-funk, jazz, and old school funk.

Producer Syk Sense said before the release of the album that the album wasn’t rooted in any of that — more the sounds of Memphis. At first blush, this seems to be the case - Kendrick’s out of the woods in a sense, taking a turn back to pop-rap while avoiding the sounds of his earlier work. Case in point: “DNA.” is Kendrick once again setting up pop-rap bangers (e.g. mAAD City, Bitch Don’t Kill my Vibe) on his own terms — terms which are wholly different from what would have been made in 2012. Mike WiLL Made-It adds a killer guitar line behind Kendrick rapping his ass off, foot never coming off the gas, beat switch be damned. And he’s talking about serious stuff, too, using DNA as a springboard for wordplay both showing his own duality and the ugliness of his enemies (and to a lesser extent, the paparazzi), which seem to include Fox News if the news clips throughout the album are any indication.

Bangers like “DNA.”, “ELEMENT.”, “LOYALTY.”, and so on are balanced out by quite a few downtempo tracks on the album. The starkest contrast here can be seen between “DNA.” and “YAH.” — the hammering beat of the first full track gives way to a hazy chart which has Kendrick singing and rapping about himself and his relationship with God (“Yahuah” — “Yah yah!”, the hook). Fox still isn’t spared the rod here, as Kendrick goes directly after Geraldo Rivera, who, despite still calling hip-hop the worst representation of culture still, says Kendrick is the best rapper behind Drake.

Kendrick gives a verbal lashing again on “ELEMENT.,” a personal favorite of none other than close friend … LeBron James. A wild James Blake appears on the production credits, which would raise the idea that he provided some of the gorgeous piano progressions during the hook. That, along with the delicate percussion in the second verse, make this almost rap caviar: highest-quality production backing up a highest-quality rapper calling other rappers out on their bullshit. Certainly, he’s in his element here.

The Kid Capri drops on “ELEMENT.” are one of quite a few famous moments and ideas in rap which are recontextualized within DAMN. “ELEMENT.” itself gives way to a chopped and screwed ending, but not before a reference to Juvenile’s New Orleans anthem, “Ha.” While obvious moments appear within the lyrics (when was the last time anyone hit the Shoulder Lean?), production notes give away more Easter Eggs, like an Outkast sample on “LUST.”

The few credited features on the album bring a lot of star power to the table, giving weight to the idea that Kendrick is going in a more pop-oriented direction, on his own terms. Rihanna comes through with plenty of swagger on “LOYALTY.”, holding her own and trading bars with Kendrick - the two seem to meet at the middle in terms of rapping vs. singing. U2’s first hip-hop collaboration is also here, on “XXX.”, this album’s only true multi-part track. Those expecting stadium rock from Bono are going to leave disappointed, but a jazzy hook on the second half of the song is a great contribution to the atmosphere of the album, which focuses not so much on Trump’s America as Kendrick living within it.

Zacari’s feature on “LOVE.” has reminded a few of a diet The Weeknd, but he holds his own on the hook — the real fault of the song seems to be its structure, with some of Kendrick’s wordplay coming off as a little vacant and off the mark, or at the very least not up to the standards placed on other parts of the album and in his discography. The same can be said of “GOD.”, which has a hook that I still really can’t make it past. It seems to be an almost parodic sentiment on the hook, and the production is nice, if a little saccharine, but the same lyrical issues still apply here. Resemblances to Drake are not unfounded for this song, at the very least.

Nestled in between those two tracks are “XXX.” and “FEAR.”, which feels somewhat analogous to “u” on TPAB in its hopelessness and meditation on the despondence of existence — what sets it apart from that is its length and the voicemail at the very end of the track, which ties together a part of the album pushing for black men in America to be more God-fearing. The voicemail’s message is a little bit of a stretch by any means, but it flows within the albums, so no knocks on “FEAR.” because of it.

Though you have to sit through “GOD.” to hear it, “DUCKWORTH.” stands as one of the best tracks on the album. If you haven’t listened to the album, do that before reading this next paragraph — Kendrick’s father meeting Top Dawg at a KFC before Kendrick was born stands, on arrival, as one of the most serendipitous stories in rap canon. What’s also jaw-dropping is that Kendrick held onto this story, through all of his K-Dot mixtapes and Kendrick Lamar EPs and albums, and decide that now was the time to use it. Over a Hiatus Kayote sample. 2017 is a strange time. There’s still a lot that hasn’t been touched in this review regarding the narrative of the album and the content of some of the tracks, which speaks volumes for the density of an album that’s almost atavistic compared to the two albums before it. What needs to be said, however, is that there are tracks here that are hard to defend in “GOD.” and “LOVE.” - something that can’t be said of TPAB and GKMC, if to a lesser extent. Section.80 stands at a similar level — a high level, but one where two albums are a cut above.

Favorite Tracks: DNA., ELEMENT., DUCKWORTH.
Least Favorite Tracks: GOD., LOVE.

Go listen to this album wherever you stream your music if you haven’t already.

Sam Shomette is currently a sophomore in ArtSci at Ohio State, and double majoring in music performance and linguistics.